Recycling, Upcycling, Refurbishing: How to tell the difference and do it yourself

Climate action can be tricky, like knowing how to recycle. And there are plenty of alternatives to tossing things in the trash, but how do we do it right?

Sure, it's not all up to you, but you can still pitch in by recycling.
Sure, it's not all up to you, but you can still pitch in by recycling.  © Collage: 123RF/potjanun, alexwhite

Taking a stand against the climate crisis can be as simply as recycling, upcycling, and refurbishing. Here's how to tell which one is which.

  • Recycling

This is the word used most to talk about taking an old product, like an empty glass bottle, breaking it down, and then making something of similar or lower quality.

How you can do it

First off, if your community doesn't offer recycling bins, you're allowed to get in touch with your city council and say, hey, we want recycling!

Short of that, you can join a recycling group near you that will take your empties for you.

You can also just turn what might seem like junk into an art project or a donation. That's an easy way to take care of empty bottles, egg cartons, or old clothes and books.

  • Upcycling

If you're taking unused stuff and making it good-looking and useful new goods, then you're upcycling, baby!

How you can do it

That can be something as simple as taking your old shoes and turning them into pots for your plants (yes, people do that), or putting a candle in an old wine bottle.

Just like with any DIY project, upcycling can take some elbow grease, but you'll be prouder of your hand-made table or picture frame than a store-bought piece.

  • Refurbishing

Loads of things we're ready to throw out are still good to go, but polishing up still useful products is how refurbished goods shine.

How you can do it

Clearing your old smartphone's hard drive and then selling or donating it as a refurbished phone is one of the best examples of refurbishing. And you can do that with plenty of electronic goods, as well as clothes and furniture.

No matter what you call it or how you recycle, it's something that is a time-honored tradition that people have been doing since before it was "cool".

The upshot of recycling

There is a shiny, greener world on the other side of the current status quo, recycling is one part of getting there.
There is a shiny, greener world on the other side of the current status quo, recycling is one part of getting there.  © Collage: 123RF/aryfahmed, pellinni

Changing how we live and recycling, upcycling, or refurbishing old stuff could have a big impact on the world.

If we have less junk in our landfills, we also end up incinerating less trash, less garbage gets into our waterways, and instead of overflowing dumps, our landfills become manageable and less of an eyesore.

And if the shirt you are tired of wearing ends up as a pillow cover or someone's hand-me-down, that's one less brand-new thing using up the planet's resources.

Repurposing our old stuff would also help drop energy use, and right now, the less power we get from fossil fuels, the better.

And the good news is, it can be done. There are already companies in the US and around the world working on making "new" products, and even entire buildings, by taking one person's trash and turning it into something useful.

Every little bit helps, and even if the biggest contributors to climate change are large corporations and fossil fuel giants, there's still room for us to do what we can and be a part of the solution.

Cover photo: Collage: 123RF/potjanun, alexwhite

More on Environment and Climate: